[This piece is intended for readers who have finished Hollow Knight and unlocked its true ending. If you haven’t, my (mostly) spoiler-free review is a much better introduction to this fantastic game.]
Deep in Kingdom’s Edge—one of the farthest reaches of Hollow Knight’s bug-filled land of Hallownest—rests the carcass of something ancient. Draped around the region’s canyons and ravines lies the snakelike body of a Wyrm, a long-extinct insect whose race predated the underground cities and passageways the creatures of Hallownest call home. Ash still drifts down from its husk, coating the walls and platforms of the caverns below. At their apex, the entrance to the Colosseum of Fools seems carved in its image—a mouth opened to the bloody gladiatorial battles that take place within. As Bardoon the caterpillar states, “with its like gone, the world is smaller.”
Hollow Knight reveals its mysteries slowly, hiding pieces of its overarching narrative in nooks and crannies of its expansive world, locking others behind the game’s traditional metroidvania-style movment abilities, never fully explaining just how this world of bugs and beasts came to be. It’s a history the player has to piece together from remnants and reminders of a derelict world—a tradition in video game storytelling so broad it spans entire genres, encompassing titles as disparate as Half-Life, BioShock, Gone Home, and Hyper Light Drifter. Here, it expands from the journeys of a wanderer through a vast, decaying kingdom—beginning with a simple descent into the Forgotten Crossroads and ending with something much like deicide. And in between, a retelling of the Prometheus myth takes shape—the story of a clever, ancient being usurping its creator and granting its subjects a new form of enlightenment.
That figure—Hallownest’s Prometheus—is the Pale King, a monarch reincarnated from the body of the Wyrm that rests in Kingdom’s Edge. Though vanished by the time the game begins, he appears in effigy and memory—through a statue in the Ancient Basin, through whispers in the City of Tears, through the memory of the White Palace waiting, hidden, for the protagonist to enter. Like the game’s other major characters, he’s neither fully good nor wholly bad. After his rebirth from the body of the Wyrm, he discovered a land of bugs who worshipped The Radiance—a mothlike creature with godlike power, who exercised total control over their minds. Wanting to free them and rule Hallownest himself, he sealed the Radiance away in a realm of dreams and, like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, he gave the bugs of Hallownest the gift of sentience. For, as the game’s starting text, the “Elegy for Hallownest,” reads:
“In wilds beyond they speak your name with reverence and regret,
For none could tame our savage souls yet you the challenge met,
Under palest watch, you taught, we changed, base instincts were redeemed,
A world you gave to bug and beast as they had never dreamed.”
This all comes together in the latter half of Hollow Knight, as the protagonist ventures to the depths of its fallen kingdom, uncovering the corpse of the Wyrm where the King was born and, after taking on the monarch’s abandoned mantle, the Abyss where his final, failed experiment came to be. Though sealed away, the Radiance never died; slowly it crept back into the minds of Hallownest’s bugs, manifesting as an “infection” that drove them back to their original violent, hive-minded nature. The King learned that, to truly seal the Radiance away, he needed a being of “perfect emptiness”—a creation of the dark, silent Void that seethes below the Ancient Basin.
So he began to craft candidates for that vessel: creatures of shadow that wear bone-white masks—known to Hallownest as “hollow knights.” The protagonist is a failed candidate, a hollow knight that, as shown in a memory sequence near the end of the game, climbed from the depths of the Abyss only to find that the Pale King had already selected another. That other appears at the final boss—a fully grown Vessel, corrupted by the infection, wracked with pain. It spends nearly as much energy in that fight attempting to stab itself with its own weapon as it does attacking you—using brief moments of sentience to try and purge the Radiance from its body.
Hollow Knight‘s cast of characters, as I wrote in my review, have that very Majora’s Mask quality of feeling like the last vestiges of sanity in an insane world—a final few trying to hang onto their minds as their lives crumble around them. Only a dwindling few seem to haved staved off the infection—Elderbug, Hornet, the merchants and Nailmasters, and the few remaining inhabitants of Dirtmouth and Mantis Village. Yet Hollow Knight never falls into the trap of a generalized world, and not all of its evils seem contigent on the presence of the Radiance. Sentience, as the Pale King learned, came with a price.
For instance, the tiny bug that fights you as False Knight, while supposedly driven mad by the infection, reveals after its dream-battle that it had only stolen its armor to protect its siblings (who you, conditioned to murder every murderable bug in the game, likely killed beforehand). The bugs of the Colosseum of Fools show none of the orange-eyed effects of the infection; instead, they fight for the sake of fighting, the audience cheering with every death and laughing with glee when surprise spike traps impale unsuspecting gladiators. Supporting characters like Zote and Tiso treat the protagonist with derision on the way to their potential deaths. Hollow Knight is, in short, a game about humanity as seen through talking insects—built with the Myth of Prometheus as its backbone and spread throughout a vast, engrossing world. It engages with cruelty of both the distant, godly kind and the familiar, human kind, and ultimately intertwines the two in a world where empathy has all but died and hope for the future hangs like a fragile thread.
In the end, if the protagonist follows the hints of the past—finds the White Lady in the Queen’s Gardens, reaches the memory of the Pale King in the White Palace, discovers its “siblings” and birthplace at the bottom of the Abyss—it succeeds in “uniting the Void” and unlocking its showdown with the Radiance. There, Hollow Knight flexes its creativity, inverting traditional tropes of light and dark; through the imagery of that final fight it casts the Sun itself as the enemy and allies you with the spiky tendrils and blackened fog of the Void. But even before its strangely humanist sensibilities climax with a primordial darkness consuming a chaotic and vengeful god, it reveals that core theme—embracing one’s flaws and accepting the impermanence of life—in a far simpler way.
Every time you die in Hollow Knight, you leave a “Shade” behind—a photo negative of the protagonist that moves and attacks with all the protagonist’s abilities and skills. In the Hunter’s Journal, the game calls the Shade an “echo of a previous life,” and instructs you to “defeat it… to become whole.” The Hunter’s notes add to that image, reading, “each of us leaves an imprint of something when we die. A stain on the world. I don’t know how much longer this kingdom can bear the weight of so many past lives.” But when you acquire the Void Heart—after learning about your past, your creation, your purpose, and “uniting the Abyss”—the Shade becomes docile and passive, simply waiting for you to strike it and retake its power. The game implies that the protagonist has, in a sense, made peace with itself; as Confessor Jiji says when you arrive to her cave wearing the Void Heart, “rare is it for one to come to terms with their regrets so completely, yet you seem to have managed it. What darkness must one wade through to achieve such a thing?”
It’s no stretch to say that games in the Dark Souls mold, where death becomes a constant fact of life, seem to even unintentionally be about coming to terms with the specter of nonexistence. Hyper Light Drifter in fact took that theme a step farther; its imagery around death and respawning carries a weight of sickness and injury that reflects its designer’s real-life struggles with a heart condition. And Hollow Knight is the same way; at its core, it embodies the humanistic side of the story of Prometheus—itself a myth about the elevation of humanity by its creator and the punishment he received for that action. Despite being entirely about walking, talking bugs, Hollow Knight presents a thesis about the beauty and impermanence of life—about the inherent failures of the human condition and the need to reconcile them with a desire for transcendence.
And in the end, as the protagonist joins with the Void and consumes the Radiance in its emptiness—freeing Hallownest from its singular, corrupting vision—it asserts that for that task we only need ourselves. We define who we are by accepting the conditions of birth and the inevitability of death. And in doing so, we forge a path—a path we choose, for better or worse. A responsibility to the world and those around us.
Prometheus gave us fire. But we decide how to use it.